The State of Wetlands
Often maligned as worthless swampland, wetlands are actually an essential factor in the state’s water equation.
By Larry McKinney
Wetlands are amazing places, biological treasure troves brimming with life. Unfortunately, most people know them only by the gross caricatures presented in TV and film. Movies such as Swamp Thing and The Creature from the Black Lagoon have portrayed wetlands as places where evil lurks and bizarre creatures emerge from the mud. And then there’s the saying that has seeped into popular culture as a way of questioning someone’s intelligence: “And if you believe that, I’ve got some swampland to sell you.” I may not be able to single-handedly repair these image problems, but I can at least try to explain why wetlands are such a vital piece of the water puzzle in this state.
Bogs, swamps, marshes, mires, fens, sloughs and cienegas are just some of the names for these remarkably diverse and productive habitats that we collectively call “wetlands.” Any place you go in Texas you can find wetlands. The deserts of West Texas are no exception. One that anyone can see, both above the surface and below through a special viewing port, is the desert cienega at Balmorhea State Park. It was created to show visitors what few people otherwise would have a chance to see — desert wetlands — which are mostly hidden in that vast and arid landscape. Historically, the knowledge of where to find them meant life or death for the traveler. While the stakes may not seem as high today, in fact, they’re higher than they’ve ever been. The alarming pace at which we are losing our wetlands is a direct threat to us all. Fortunately, private landowners, government and nongovernmental conservation organizations increasingly share a common goal, each valuing these gems in their own way, but with a common aim of conservation. It is not an easy task, with competing demands for the water that sustains them and the lands they occupy.
Far across the state from Balmorhea, on the northernmost border of Texas and Louisiana, lies one of the truly spectacular wetlands in our state, Caddo Lake State Park. This maze of sloughs, bayous and cypress trees is a wetland such as many would imagine existed in the time of dinosaurs. Early morning and late evening are the times that best show its timeless beauty and mystery. The croaky call of a startled great blue heron, the rising song of frogs and the swirling ripple of a submerging alligator punctuate still and mirrored waters. To really appreciate it you have to climb into a canoe or onto a kayak and paddle the well-marked trails. And believe me, you want to stay on the trails, and you do not want to fall out of the boat!
The playa lakes of the Panhandle, the hardwood bottomlands of East Texas, the resacas of South Texas and the prairie potholes of the coastal plains are just some of the more recognized wetlands habitats that fill in between the extremes of deep East Texas and far West Texas. All have unique features, as expressed in their diversity of vegetation, but they all have a common characteristic as well: water. Okay, it is no great leap of intuition that wetlands require water. It is how that water is expressed, however, that dictates the form and function of any wetland. Because of that direct link, wetlands are the first landform to feel the diversion of water from the river and the estuary, the depletion of groundwater feeding the spring and the inundation of bottomlands for new reservoirs. We must assure that water for the environment is part of the water equation. Just as munici-pal, industrial and agricultural water needs must be considered as we allocate this limited resource to various uses, we must never forget that our rivers, lakes, bays and the wetlands associated with them need water as well.
Every part of our state has one or more kind of wetland, and our system of state parks and wildlife management areas is often the most accessible means of seeing them and learning about them. The value of wetlands, or, more aptly, the lack of our ability to fully appreciate their value, is the crux of the problem. Nationwide and in Texas, we have lost 50 percent, or even more, of these valuable resources.
How valuable are wetlands? The deadly impact of Hurricane Katrina illustrates one of those values — flood control. Louisiana is a true wetland state, as some 28 percent of its land mass is defined as a wetland. Louisiana also has seen some of the greatest loss of wetlands over the years, a rate of 29 square miles a year. A number of experts have stated that the storm surge that inundated so much of southern Louisiana would have been much lower if historic wetlands had been in place. One estimate is that for every 2.7 miles of wetlands it must cross, a storm surge can be reduced by as much as two feet. How much damage would have been mitigated by a lower surge from Katrina, or Rita for that matter? Would the levees in New Orleans have failed? No one really knows, but there is no doubt that intact wetlands would have saved billions in damage and countless lives.
The values of wetlands are as numerous as the names by which we know them. In addition to flood control, wetlands also store and recycle nutrients; treat and recycle human waste; recharge groundwater; provide a buffer for salinity changes; control erosion; protect water quality; help stabilize ecosystems and climate and, act as a nursery habitat and refuge for countless birds and aquatic organisms. While many of these values may be a surprise, most of us recognize how important wetland habitats are to fish and wildlife. Redfish, spotted sea trout, crabs and shrimp are just some of the species that depend upon coastal wetlands at key stages of their life cycle. Waterfowl, wading birds and many shorebirds find refuge, nesting and feeding habitat in almost every type of wetland.
The economic impact of hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing has been estimated at $10.9 billion per year in Texas. Wetlands and their ecological functions are key to sustaining these recreational values and the economic returns they represent. Such benefits are collectively recognized as “direct” and can most easily be measured as pounds of seafood produced or in terms of recreational expenditures by anglers or birdwatchers. Indirect values are another matter. Perhaps the greatest values of wetlands to the greatest number of us are the mostly unrecognized direct values of flood control and water treatment. Most of us are not aware that many of our wetlands are an integral part of every major city’s wastewater treatment system.
Functioning wetlands provide much of the tertiary treatment, that final and necessary step in cleaning up water quality. That step is necessary before the water can be reused by others downstream or before we can eat the seafood our wastewater discharges eventually wash over. Wetlands, healthy and functioning, serve that role. Natural processing saves us millions of dollars annually in treatment costs. Wetlands are the reason many of our rivers and much of our coastline have not been closed to fishing, swimming and recreational use. The artificial wetlands in the Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area exemplify this function as nowhere else in Texas, or maybe anywhere, period. Here wetlands have been created by diverting Trinity River water into the area and through constructed wetlands to create waterfowl habitat while naturally treating that water to meet municipal water needs as it comes out the other end. It has saved the cost of constructing an additional reservoir and created recreational opportunities — everyone wins.
Indirect values of wetlands are not so easily defined but may be of even greater importance. How important is it to save wetlands for the future? Most of us have a strong desire to make sure that future generations of Texans have at least some of what we have come to enjoy. Wetlands are some of our most threatened habitats. As a society we will have to make some difficult calls in the future, and how we value wetlands in the context of other uses for them will be important. If we cannot express that value, termed “bequest value” by economists, in a meaningful way we can expect significant losses to continue.
Another form of indirect value is related to maintaining future options. It is always a wise course to keep options open as long as possible, especially when it is difficult or impossible to reverse your decision. Once you destroy many types of wetlands there is no way to restore them. Bequest values and options values are the indirect values so difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify when assessing wetlands in the light of their conversion to other uses. The one thing we do know is that when they are gone, they are priceless.
Some have tried to define both direct and indirect wetland values in economic terms as a means of better understanding and appreciating them. The collective term “ecosystem services” has been used to summarize these values. One set of estimates calculated that value at $1,200 to $5,000 per acre, considerably more than some of the best farmland. I am sure that number raises some eyebrows. The reason is that most of us can visualize how the value of an acre of farmland would benefit us if we owned it. That is not the case when the benefits are something as hazy as ecosystem services. We all benefit from these services in both direct and indirect ways, common benefits to society as a whole.
A commons in the old English sense was a piece of property, usually a pasture, that was held or owned by all in the community and that could be used by any and all. The commons provided a valuable service to the whole, but because it belonged to no one, and everyone, commons were often abused. It was such a frequent outcome that a parable arose around it and came to be known as the “tragedy of the commons.” As implied in the allegory, those things that we hold in common most often suffer in contrast to those that we hold individually. Wetlands are our modern commons, and we seem to be repeating the past in our treatment of them.
The Texas commons now equals about 7 million acres of wetlands. We once had some 16 million acres. The hardwood bottomlands of East Texas, nearly all of which are associated with the major river systems of that region, comprise 84 percent (5,973,000 acres) of that total and coastal marsh about nine percent. The remainder is distributed between all of the remaining wetland types. In reaching our current population and level of economic development, we have destroyed some 56 percent of our original wetland commons. We will double our present population in fewer than 30 years. We simply cannot absorb the ecological and economic consequences of treating our wetlands as we have done in the past. We have consumed half of our wetland resources to reach our current population. We cannot use up the remaining half as we double the number of people in Texas. It is the tragedy of the commons writ large and across our entire state.
Fortunately, we do not have to go down that path, and many are working to avert it. The rate of loss has slowed somewhat over the last several years but continues at a rate of around 58,500 acres per year nationally. The good news is that the current rate of wetlands loss is almost five times slower than it was 30 years ago. Wetlands restoration of at least some types of wetlands, like coastal salt marshes, is relatively easily accomplished now. Over the last 11 years, TPWD and an impressive array of state and federal resource agencies, nongovernmental conservation organizations, businesses and individuals have partnered to restore more than 11,000 acres of wetlands, much of it in Galveston Bay, where past loss has been dramatic. TPWD, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) and Ducks Unlimited have underwritten the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project to assist private landowners in wetlands conservation. More than 27,000 acres of wetlands have been restored and technical assistance provided on more than 400,000 additional acres. There are many such restoration opportunities, and two good sources for more information about them are your local TPWD biologist and the TPWD Web site: <www.tpwd.state. tx.us/>. If you really want to get your hands dirty, you can do that as well. The Galveston Bay Foundation sponsors an event called Marsh Mania, in which you can go out and actually help restore wetlands by planting marsh plants in a restoration site.
Challenges remain, and time is short for all of us truly to come to realize the value of our Texas wetlands. We all have a stake in their conservation. The ecological and economic health of Texas depends upon it. While we have lost much, what remains continues to serve us well. Our goal should be to save what we have and restore what we can. We have the knowledge, skills and tools to accomplish that end. We are certainly capable of doing so, and if successful, we can leave a wonderful gift for those who come after us.
Brief History of U.S. Wetlands
By Wendee Holtcamp
Ten years ago, Ted Williams wrote a story for Audubon magazine, “What Good is a Wetland?” He described the change from society’s myths that wetlands are dark, festering swamps, that they are breeding grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes, pests and disease, and that we would be better off if they were all sucked dry.
When Europeans colonized the U.S., the land teemed with wildlife and wilderness, including vast expanses of prairie potholes, coastal marsh and bottomland hardwood forests — all forms of wetlands. The lower 48 had more than 221 million acres of wetlands, with an additional 230 million in Alaska and Hawaii. While many reflect on the loss of wilderness, beauty, biodiversity, habitat and ecological functions wetlands provide, they were not always so revered. Fears of disease, pests and fearsome swamp beasts inspired a rush to drain, fill and suck them dry.
In the 18th century, William Byrd called the “Dismal Swamp” in Virginia and North Carolina “a horrible desert [where] the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air and render it unfit for respiration.” The U.S. Supreme Court dubbed wetlands the cause of malarial and malignant fevers in the 20th century and said, “The police power is never more legitimately exercised than in removing such nuisances.” The Swamp Lands Acts gave 65 million acres of federal land to states with the caveat that they drain them.
The heyday of environmentalism in the 1970s saw the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, and helped shift views of swamps, bogs, sloughs and marshes from dank, musty places demanding drainage to wetlands with inherent functional value for enhancing water quality and providing wildlife habitat.
Many attribute the societal sea change to Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, widely heralded as the impetus behind these laws. The book foresaw a silent spring, when no bird or frog or cicada would sing, if the nation continued in the same direction.
Congress enacted the Clean Water Act of 1972 to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” Defining the nation’s waters has proven a bit trickier. Did it or did it not include wetlands?
The law charged the Army Corps of Engineers with regulation and permitting. The Corps opted to regulate only traditionally navigable waterways, but a federal court ordered them to follow “Congressional Intent.” In response, in 1977 the Corps explicitly included, “isolated wetlands and lakes, intermittent streams, prairie potholes, and other waters that are not part of a tributary system to interstate waters or to navigable waters of the United States, the degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate commerce.”
According to the EPA, “The definition promulgated in 1977 is substantially the same as the one in effect today.” In practice, a tangled mire of court cases and contradictory regulations coming out of different Corps Districts with no clear national guidance has led to a sort of Wild West for wetlands.
Why did the Clean Water Act even address wetlands? Two reasons. Hydrologically, through surface runoff or other connections, wetlands connect to other waterways. And the scientific data are indisputable: Wetlands clean water.
A wetland can take rainwater runoff coming from major metropolitan areas and, within a matter of days, neutralize chemicals and nutrients through microbial processes. Wetlands clean water so well that a handful of innovators figured out how to harness their power by engineering them for specific purposes. Constructed wetlands have been used to detoxify effluent from paper mills, mines, refineries, urban storm runoff, sewage and municipal gray water — to name a few (see also “Washing the Water,”).